Iraq and Gulf Analysis

Archive for the ‘Iranian influence in Iraq’ Category

Talabani Makes Another Constitutional Invention

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 6 January 2011 14:30

The media is full of speculation about the return of Muqtada al-Sadr and what it means for Iraqi politics. The truth of the matter is we probably won’t know for some time yet. What is worse, though, is that whereas all the discussion of problems in Iraqi politics right now seems focused on Sadr and what it means for Iranian power in Iraq, the more gradual and less spectacular destruction of the Iraqi state in the name of a system of ethno-sectarian quota-sharing favoured by Iran continues on a daily basis.

In other words, Iraqi politicians don’t need Sadr’s help in order to disassemble their own nation. They’re doing quite fine in that respect already. Take the lingering issue of the deputies of the president. Apparently some in the Iraqi media must have finally woken up and challenged the establishment, because on Monday there was a report that one Ismail Alwan, described as a “legal expert”, claimed the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, had issued a special “order” whereby his two previous deputies in the presidency council, Adel Abd al-Mahdi and Tareq al-Hashemi, had somehow been made “temporary deputies” for him. Sources in the offices of the two men confirmed the existence of this kind of “order”.

Multiple questions arise out of this. Firstly, where exactly is the order? If it is somewhere on the presidency website then it must be carefully hidden, for the news section there is just full of the usual idle reports on Talabani’s endless travel and ceremonial exchanges of telegrams with foreign dignitaries. Second, if the order exists, how has Talabani acquired the right to create any deputies in the absence of a law for their election? Clearly, that is for the federal supreme court and not the president to decide. If the president has indeed issued this kind of order (and he has been innovative in this respect in the past) he should be challenged to present it to the public with a reference to the legal rationale for this course of action, because it is far from obvious that he has the right to make this kind of appointment.

What this all goes back to is the continued failure of much of the Iraqi media to appreciate the radical difference between the relatively weak presidency now in force and the relatively strong presidency council that was a transitional arrangement for the first parliamentary cycle from 2005 to 2010 only. The latter does not exist anymore and cannot be revived except after a referendum; it goes without saying that Talabani’s deputies in the presidency council cannot follow him into the presidency: The two offices have completely different sets of prerogatives and have no relationship to each other. The soon-to-be-adopted draft law on the “deputies of the president” also confirms this state of affairs.

The case of the deputies of the president and the way it gets overshadowed by Muqtada al-Sadr just underlines how Iran’s sophisticated strategy of achieving influence in Iraq is succeeding thanks to American misreadings of what that strategy is. Alarm clocks appear to go off in Washington whenever there is mention of Muqtada; however Iran’s more basic strategy of keeping the Iraqis preoccupied with the game of ethno-sectarian quotas is promoted and even celebrated by the Americans. It should be a hint to Washington that Muqtada is not the sole VIP traveller between Iraq and Iran right now: This week also sees visits to Iraq by the Iranian foreign ministers and Kurdish leaders plus Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Shiite alliance going to Iran.

The key question going forward is more than what Sadr will do. Rather it is about whether the new government can stop thinking about silly quotas, dozens of useless deputy president positions and made-up interpretations of the constitution aimed at perpetuating the system of sinecures, and instead build a strong and coherent government capable of confronting whatever cards Muqtada may have up his sleeve.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraqi constitutional issues | 8 Comments »

Abd al-Mahdi in Tehran: Who Is Paying for This?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Sunday, 26 December 2010 14:30

Those who prefer to adopt a jubilant narrative on the wonderful successes of Iraq in the post-2003 period often dwell at the supposed brilliance of the new, free press in the country. Free it may well be, at least to some extent, but competent it surely isn’t.

Take its collective failure when it comes to detecting some of the serious fraud involved in the illegal multiplication of vice-presidents of the country in the past two months. When Jalal Talabani was elected as president on 11 November this year without deputies, his two previous deputies, Adel Abd al-Mahdi of ISCI and Tariq al-Hashemi of Iraqiyya automatically lost their jobs. The reason for this is simple: The transitional presidency that lasted from 2005 and 2010 and the ordinary presidency are two entirely different political institutions: The first was a powerful instrument of consociational democracy that featured significant veto powers; the second is an ornamental institution only with largely ceremonial powers and no right to veto anything. No vice-presidents were elected on 11 November because the law for electing the presidential deputies has yet to be adopted. Unlike the modalities for electing the president – which have been spelt out in the constitution and made it possible to move ahead with the election of Talabani even though this too was legally somewhat dubious since no special law for electing him had been passed – neither the number nor the powers of the vice-presidents (not to speak of the method for their election) have been hammered out in the constitution. A law on the subject is currently snaking its way through parliament, with suggestions that there may be three or four deputies to Talabani in the next cycle. Like Talabani himself they will play a symbolic role only, but as of today the law has yet to be passed.

Despite this situation, Iraqi media keep referring to Adil Abd al-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashemi as if they were still vice-presidents! For example, in a press release after the recent visit by Abd al-Mahdi to Tehran, Iraqi media covered the event as a visit by an Iraqi vice-president, echoing the tone of the press release from Abd al-Mahdi’s own office.

وقال بيان لمكتب عبد المهدي :” ان نائب رئيس الجمهورية التقى في طهران امس رئيس جمهورية ايران الاسلامية محمود احمدي نجاد ، حيث قدم الرئيس الايراني في بداية اللقاء التهاني والتبريكات بمناسبة تشكيل الحكومة العراقية الجديدة ، معتبرا ذلك خطوة مهمة لتحقيق الامن والاستقرار في العراق والمنطقة عموما “.

Of course, the fact that his office keeps referring to Abd al-Mahdi in this way may simply be down to sheer hubris among his staff. But the failure of the Iraqi press to detect the problem is more serious and relates to a fundamental failure in understanding the nature of the political system in the country. Not least, it begs the question of who paid for the trip! It may well be that Abd al-Mahdi eventually gets elected as (ordinary) vice-president, perhaps already in a few weeks’ time. But right now, unless he has taken the oath as an ordinary deputy of parliament, he is a private citizen. In times of austerity the Iraqi electorate has the right to know whether government funds are being used to finance travel activity on the part of non-existing vice presidents or not.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraqi constitutional issues | 26 Comments »

Innocuous Border Violations: Ali al-Adib Introduces a New Concept in International Law

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 28 August 2010 17:37

In a remarkable interview with the Sumaria television station, Ali al-Adib of the Daawa party has described recent cases of Iranian trespassing on the Iraqi borders as “trifling”:

إيران تعمل على أن تكون الحكومة المقبلة غير عدوانية ولا تحب الحرب واستخدام منطق القوة لحسم بعض التحركات البسيطة مثل تلك التي تجري على الحدود العراقية”، في إشارة منه إلى القصف الإيراني لمناطق شمال العراق والتوغلات في الأراضي العراقية الجبلية

Over and above that, Adib goes on to accuse unnamed parties for exploiting these “innocuous” incidents for propaganda purposes and demagoguery.

Given the current heated atmosphere of Iraqi politics, some commenters are already rushing to interpret these statements as an indication of the pro-Iranian stance of  the State of Law alliance (SLA) as a whole, and as decisive proof of Iranian support for Nuri al-Maliki’s candidature for the premiership. That is too simplistic. In fact, there seems to be intense rivalry going on inside State of Law for the time being, with some reports saying Tareq Najm, the director of Maliki’s office, has been sacked while others say he is on sick leave. Significantly, since the summer of 2009 Adib himself has been a moving spirit in bringing SLA closer to the “other” Shiite alliance, the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), and he recently refused to rule out himself as a possible compromise premier candidate for such a pan-Shiite constellation, indicating in fact a record of considerable friction between him and Maliki.

Although there is a certain parallel in the lack of reactions to the Fakka incident in December 2009, perhaps the most shocking aspect of this latest comment is the level of audacity. Back in 2006, Adib reportedly dropped out of the Shiite premier contest because he was seen as having too many family connections to Iran. Today he apparently does not see any problems in playing down what others will see as unacceptable violations of Iraqi sovereignty by Iran. It really is a far cry from the kind of “reduced Iranian influence in Iraq” scenario that the Obama administration has propagated over the past weeks during the run-up to the anticipated Iraq speech by the US president on 31 August.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 40 Comments »

Armistice and Governance in the Iraqi Government-Formation Process: The US Position

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 26 August 2010 14:28

As the end of the US combat mission in Iraq is drawing to a close (31 August), there are two basic approaches to the ongoing, stalemated process of government formation in Iraq.The first approach assumes that Iraq’s citizens are more interested in issues like security, health and services than in sectarian bickering and that it is possible to form a government based on common views on basic political issues instead of taking into consideration calculations relate to ethno-sectarian identities… Full story here.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi constitutional issues, Sectarian master narrative, US policy in Iraq: Leverage issues | 50 Comments »

A Question for ISCI/Badr: Why Should the Next Iraqi Premier Be “Regionally Acceptable”?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 3 August 2010 17:35

A new member of parliament and a high-ranking member of the Badr corps in Wasit, Qasim al-Aaraji, made some interesting comments in an interview with the Aswat al-Iraq news agency today. Rejecting Maliki’s accession to a second term, he stressed how the next prime minister would have to be “nationally and regionally acceptable”:

“نحن نعتقد ان المالكي هو الذي يتحمل تأخر تشكيل الحكومة منذ أربعة أشهر”، مشيرا الى ان “المالكي سد الطريق أمام أعضاء دولة القانون للترشيح الى رئاسة الوزراء، ونحن على استعداد لقبول أي مرشح من القانون بديل عن المالكي، إذا كان مقبولا وطنيا وإقليميا”.

“Regionally”, Mr. Aaraji? That is a remarkable statement for someone who spent many years in Iran,  whose regime also created the Badr brigades to which Aaraji belongs. But surely, the only possible meaning of the statement is in fact “acceptable to Iran”, since Aaraji most probably is not trying to defend Saudi interests all of a sudden (it is probably also a better reflection of Iran’s true feelings about Maliki than stories that have been circulating recently in the Saudi-sponsored “pan-Arab” press where there are plenty of somewhat rabid Maliki haters). It should also serve as a reminder to Iraqiyya, which still seems to be conducting some kind of dialogue with the Shiite coalition that Aaraji is a part of – the Iraqi National Alliance, or INA – that this coalition was in fact created by Iran last May with the aim of creating a sectarian Shiite front in the 2010 parliamentary elections, except that Maliki refused to join them. Lest there be any confusion: Aaraji in another recent interview made it clear that the negotiations between INA and Iraqiyya were going nowhere because Iraqiyya was insisting on having the prime ministerial position and that it be given to their candidate, Ayad Allawi:

ذكر عضو الائتلاف الوطني قاسم الأعرجي ان العقبة الرئيسية في الحوارات بين ائتلافه والقائمة العراقية التي حالت دون التوصل الى نتيجة، هي مطالبة العراقية بالاعتراف بحقها الدستوري في تشكيل الحكومة ونيل رئاسة الوزراء.

So both Allawi and Maliki are “regionally unacceptable” according to Iran and Aaraji; the better solution, in the words of Aaraji, is a “compromise candidate” from the would-be Shiite alliance (in a recent interview the Syrian foreign minister, too, made it clear that the whole idea of black-listing individual premier candidates and attempting to exercise a “regional” veto power comes primarily from Iran). That is a pretty upbeat negotiating position for INA, which came third in the elections, with no individual candidates capable of matching the 1 million personal votes that Maliki and Allawi share between them. Should really Badr/ISCI, with less than 20 seats in parliament, be able to use the argument of “regional acceptability” generally and Tehran’s interests especially to override the wishes of so many Iraqi voters? Is it not abundantly clear that the strongest proponents of the oversized “government of national unity” with a weak prime minister intend to use this device to subvert the will of the Iraqi electorate and instead serve their own party interests and those of their regional patrons?

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, UIA dynamics | 31 Comments »

The Death of Fadlallah and ISCI-Daawa Relations

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 5 July 2010 17:38

In an interesting move, both the governorate councils of Maysan and Najaf have declared three days of mourning for the late Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a Lebanon-based Shiite cleric of Iraqi origins.

Fadlallah was deeply respected among many Iraqis, not least among many Daawa members who looked to him as an alternative to other clerics that were considered more subservient to Iran. However, others were engaged in criticism to undermine his scholarly credentials, and entire websites devoted to repudiating him as a scholar exist. His enemies included not least his pro-Iranian competitor on the Iraqi scene, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. Below is an electronic fatwa from Hakim’s office dating from late 2002 in which it is suggested that Fadlallah has not reached the scholarly stage at which he can be emulated by other Shiites as an example and a point of reference for issuing fatwas.

Of course, Hakim was himself not considered a “source of emulation” until some SCIRI devotees posthumously elevated him to this status. But his attacks on Fadlallah serve as a reminder of the differences between different Iraqi Shiite factions when it comes to their degree of enthusiasm for the Islamic Republic of Iran and its system of government.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics | 8 Comments »

Is This the PM Committee of the New Shiite Bloc?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 6 May 2010 21:26

Not sure about the authenticity of this news item that has circulated in Iraqi media outlets for the past day, but it has now also been reproduced by the Iranian news agency IRIB (which is supposed to be in the know about what is going on at the top level in Tehran and among its friends in Iraq). Basically, the report says that a 10-person committee has been tasked with selecting the premier candidate for the new all-Shiite alliance that was formed earlier. It will do so with a consensus among 8 of the 10 leaders, and supposedly they will choose between Nuri al-Maliki, Bayan Jabar Solagh, Adel Abd al-Mahdi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

Perhaps the more interesting part of the story, if it is true, is the composition of the committee appointed to choose the PM. It consists of the following:

1.Tareq Najm (Daawa)

2. Ali al-Adib (Daawa)

3. Abd al-Halim al-Zuhayri (Daawa)

4. Hasan al-Sunayd (Daawa)

5. Khudayr al-Khuzai, (Daawa/Tanzim al-Iraq)

6. Ahmad Chalabi (INC)

7. Humam Hamudi (ISCI)

8. Falah al-Fayyad (Islah/Jaafari)

9. Qusay al-Suhayl (Sadrist)

10. Hasan al-Shammari (Fadila)

It is noteworthy that the Sadrists, who make up 25% of the new Shiite alliance, are grossly underrepresented, whereas Chalabi and Jaafari are over-represented. Daawa has a good share, but almost everyone listed here are those who called for Daawa to join INA much earlier and were angry when Maliki refused to do so in August 2009.

It should also be added that so far the above item has not been carried by the main ISCI news media (Buratha, Forat etc.), which in other respects have lost no time in expressing jubilation over the new alliance. The list of PM candidates on offer also seems a little dated, and it would be slightly strange if ISCI should still try to promote both Solagh and Abd al-Mahdi after they were both given low ratings in the Sadrist “referendum”. More generally, Iraq seems to be teeming with rumours today that in various way challenge the credibility of the new Shiite alliance, including rumours of Unity of Iraq still seeking alliances with State of Law and Iraqiyya and pro-INA commentators demanding answers from Maliki about rumoured negotiations with Iraqiyya in Amman!

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics, Uncategorized | 50 Comments »

At Long Last, Tehran Gets Its Alliance and the Clock Is Turned Back to 2005 in Iraq

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 4 May 2010 22:28

Ever since the provincial elections in January 2009, Iran has worked steadfastly [PDF] to revive the then-defunct United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the sectarian Shiite alliance that was created back in 2004 and that largely collapsed in 2007. After Ahmad Chalabi played an initial role in bringing  the Sadrists and ISCI back together in the first part of 2009, the final reunification took place Tuesday night in Baghdad when the State of Law list headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki joined the other Shiites to form a single parliamentary bloc. The successful revival of the de-Baathification agenda was probably the key factor in destroying the promising tendencies of a more nationalist and less sectarian approach by Maliki in 2009.

Few details about the reunion have been published so far (and notably no PM candidate), but it is known that it was held at the house of Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Jaafari came out with the best result in the informal Sadrist referendum for the next prime minister that was held earlier.

It is expected that the new alliance (which so far does not appear to have a name or a bloc leader) will claim the right to form a government despite the fact that it was created after the elections and thus in disregard of the electorate (which was not told much about this prospect during the brief campaign). The all-Shiite bloc will likely turn to the Kurds next, but it is noteworthy that it is just four seats or so away from a parliamentary majority of its own so those smaller groups that dare will probably be handsomely rewarded if they opt to join and help the new alliance avoid painful compromises with Arbil. Of course, they also risk being labelled Sunni “stooges” of a sectarian Shiite government.

Under any circumstances, this seems to be a step backwards to Iraq and a return to the unhealthy sectarian climate that dominated much of the period between 2005 and 2007. However much they talk about “unity”, the members of the new alliance have little in common except the fact that they are mostly Shiites. It is a far cry from the situation just half a year ago, when Maliki was talking about political majorities and ideologically consistent cabinets.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, UIA dynamics, Uncategorized | 76 Comments »

Not Another Governing Council, Please!

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 6 April 2010 8:46

Among the several scenarios for a new Iraqi government that are floating around, one stands out as particularly unattractive and potentially destructive for Iraq as a state: The vision of a grandiose coalition combining all the blocs that won large numbers of seats in the 7 March elections.

This idea is becoming increasingly recurrent in Iraqi discussions. Early on, it was only Adil Abd al-Mahdi of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) that talked about it, referring to a potential combination of his own Iraqi National Alliance (INA), Maliki’s State of Law (SLA), Iraqiyya (INM) and the main Kurdish alliance. More recently, however, also Ammar al-Hakim and other ISCI leaders have expressed interest in this kind of scenario, and no one in Iraqiyya has yet had the courage to rule it out. Predictably, decimated blocs (like Tawafuq) plus Unity of Iraq and the various minority representatives are calling for even bigger iterations of this scheme, including, unsurprisingly, themselves in ministerial roles.

Any government of this category would mean a sorry return to Iraq of 2003 and the “governing council” that was put in place by Paul Bremer back then. Its hallmarks will be indecision, incompetence and corruption – the inevitable characteristics of a government that has no single vision or unity of purpose, and basically has been thrown together with the aim of letting as many people as possible prey on the resources of the state in the hope that this will keep them from fighting with each other instead. Expect no progress on key legislation (since bills will never achieve consensus even inside the government), and no improvement of governance capacity (since ministers inevitably will be political appointees rather than technocrats). But above all, this will be a government defined first and foremost by its bigness, with an oversized cabinet and an additional number of ministers without portfolio.

Alas, this silly idea is likely to get an ecstatic reception in the international community. Few will be surprised that Iran likes it: Absent the creation of a purely Shiite or Shiite-Kurdish government, Tehran’s next best option for Iraq is an oversized government incapable of making decisions (which in the case of an oil law would directly threaten the Iranian oil policy of low output, high price), and with the sub-identities of the country’s population forming an implicit or explicit role in the dynamics of government formation (meaning Shiite Islamists will continue to dominate). But beyond Iran, the label that is being used by the Iraqi proponents of this idea – shiraka or partnership – will likely be welcomed also by Western players whose fear of exclusions and the concomitant creation of “spoilers” is such that it leads them to uncritically embrace the logic of “the more, the merrier” (or “inclusiveness” as they euphemistically label it). In their view, the only thing that matters is to keep the surface calm around the time of the US drawdown by the end of August, quite regardless of the potential for severe complications further down the road.

The big irony of this is of course that two of the prospective participants in such a government of national unity would in fact do a lot better if they formed a government alone. So why is it that SLA and INM cannot put aside personal differences and create a strong government (180 plus seats in parliament) that would have the potential to rule Iraq far more effectively? If Allawi and Maliki are to endure the discomfort of sitting in the same government anyway, why not ditch the two other and smaller partners – INA and the Kurds – whose sole contribution after all would be to create ideological contradictions along the centralism/decentralism axis and therefore a considerable potential for complete paralysis? With their common position on the virtues of pragmatism and a strong centralised state, such a two-party government would be able to push through legislation on the oil sector and revenue distribution faster than anyone else, which in turn would enable it to deal with more controversial issues in a less tense atmosphere later on. Crucially, with its strong popular basis from Basra to Mosul, this kind of government would have sufficient room for manoeuvre to offer generous concessions to Kurdistan without destroying the concept of centralised government in the rest of Iraq.

The problem is that because of personal differences, both SLA and INM have avoided the logical step of moving closer together, and instead invented rather strained discourses of mutual antipathy to justify their turn to less logical alliance partners (SLA and the Kurds; INM and INA). For example, Iraqiyya leaders criticise Maliki for concentrating power and for allowing Daawa to acquire strength in the public sector in undemocratic ways. True, these are valid and important points that need to be dealt with. But is the solution to add the Kurds and INA to the mix? With their ties to the Kurdish asayish secret police, the Badr brigades and the Iranian revolutionary guards, are these so much more democratic than the Daawa? Was it not INA that after all initiated the attack on INM through the de-Baathification process? Similarly, Iraqiyya has failed to give Maliki due credit for some of the good things he did back in 2008, including turning against Shiite militias, highlighting the significance of revising the constitution, and attempting to move away from power-sharing towards more ideologically based political alliances. For their part, the Daawa has not been sufficiently responsive to some of the positive overtures from the INM camp during 2009. Take for example the Hadba/Iraqiyun/Nujayfi bloc from Mosul, which has repeatedly called for more troops from the central government to the northern parts of the Nineveh governorate. This act of profound recognition of the Shiite-led government by a mainly Sunni party with strong local backing represents an important step forwards towards national reconciliation that has so far not received the attention it deserves in SLA circles.

Once the idea of another “national unity” government gets going in earnest, things will really start to mushroom. Surely, in such a government there must be space for all the “components” (mukawwinat) of the Iraqi people? What about Assyrian Christians, Chaldean Christians, Mandaeans, African and Caucasian minorities? A previous Kurdistan regional government had 40 plus ministries, but why stop there? Maybe the next Iraqi government could have 50 ministries?

The big problem is that there are a couple of hundred influential people in the world that prefer this scenario. Partly they are Iraqis, who claim to speak in the names of the ethno-sectarian communities they refer to all the time. Partly they are outsiders, some of them Americans, who are terrified of any bold move that could be construed as a risk for their own plans of declaring Iraq “normal” over the coming months (actually, the chances of achieving real and enduring normality is probably a lot bigger with a truly effective government). The victims are the millions of Iraqis who do not care about the ethno-sectarian identities that are currently being used as basis for government formation, and just want a state capable of delivering security, jobs and services.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, Iraqi nationalism, UIA dynamics | 28 Comments »

Kazim al-Haeri’s Elections?

Posted by Reidar Visser on Saturday, 6 March 2010 22:38

Among the more overlooked aspects of the Iraqi parliamentary elections that take place on Sunday is the fact that Kazim al-Haeri, a hardliner cleric of Iraqi origin residing in Qum in Iran, enthusiastically supports participation.

Haeri belongs to a particular class and generation of Shiite scholars: He is an old-school Khomeinist. Always loyal to the paradigm of wilayat al-faqih, he has written extensive treatises on the inviolability of the power of the supreme leader, not only inside Iran but throughout the Shiite world. He remained supportive of such views when Khamenei emerged as Khomeini’s successor in the first half 1990s; after 2003 he has formed an important (if not always stable) bridge between Iranian leaders and the Sadrists of Iraq. In this role, Haeri forms the juncture where orthodox Khomeinism and radical Sadrism of southern Iraq meet, and where Tehran has found its best vantage point for domesticating radical Iraqi trends and transforming them into tools of its own interests… Full story at the Gulf Research Unit blog, where Iraq articles with regional dimensions will be posted occasionally. The comments option remains open at this blog, below.

Posted in Iranian influence in Iraq, Iraq's 2010 parliamentary election, UIA dynamics | 6 Comments »